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What Was the Lincoln Conspiracy?

By M. Dee Dubroff
Updated May 23, 2024
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The events culminating in the assassination of the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, are known as the Lincoln conspiracy. This conspiracy concerns the murderous machinations of its chief instigator, Shakespearean actor and Southern sympathizer, John Wilkes Booth. His band of followers agreed to his scheme to rid the Union of all of its leaders in one fell swoop. On 14 April 1865, at 10:15 PM, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward were all slated to die at the hands of Booth and his accomplices, but as is the case for the best-laid schemes of mice and men, it all went astray.

The Lincoln conspiracy began as a plot to kidnap the president shortly after his second inauguration. Originally, Booth plotted to kidnap Lincoln, hold him captive in the Southern capitol of Richmond, and exchange him for Confederate soldiers held captive in various Union prisons. The plan was foiled and soon the conspiracy turned from a plan of kidnapping to one of murder. A truculent and angry man, Booth hated what he called the president's "northern abolitionism," and considered the declaration of martial law in his home state of Maryland a clear abuse of executive power.

As part of the plan, General Ulysses S. Grant was supposed to attend the performance of "Our American Cousin" at Ford's Theater on that April evening, but a tiff between his wife, Julia, and Mary Todd Lincoln prevented their attendance. The life of Secretary of State William Seward was saved because of a neck brace he was forced to wear due to a carriage accident; it deflected the blows from the knife held by Booth's accomplice. Another accomplice in the conspiracy who was assigned to kill Vice President Johnson in his Kirkwood House residence made no attempt to do so.

Booth escaped the theater, but was tracked down by soldiers and died of a gunshot wound on 26 April. Four other members of the Lincoln conspiracy, including the first woman to be hanged in the United States, Mary Surratt, were hung on 7 July, a week after being convicted by a military commission. Four others were sentenced to prison, three to life sentences.

One of the most contested convictions was that of Dr. Samuel Mudd, who at first denied knowing who Booth was when he set his ankle, which was broken in his jump from the presidential balcony to the stage on the night of the assassination. Mudd later admitted that he'd met Booth once before. Dr. Mudd was sentenced to life in prison on Devil's Island for his involvement in the assassination. He served many years before being pardoned, and the expression "his name was mud" comes from this man's predicament.

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Discussion Comments
By jcraig — On Sep 07, 2012

I would really like to know more of the motivations of the conspirators in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

I really have to wonder exactly what they were thinking, as far as what their actions would accomplish and whether or not they thought they would actually create change, since the war was realistically over.

I do not see what change they thought they could create, but I find it interesting, because it involved so many people and was so complex that they had to have some types of goals in the conspiracy besides just killing the leaders.

By Izzy78 — On Sep 07, 2012

I have a really random question, but how famous was John Wilkes Booth at the time of the conspiracy?

I am only asking because I am trying to imagine if he was a really famous actor, and he all of a sudden killed the president of the United States, then that would be something in itself.

Unlike another politician killing one of their peers in an overthrow, it would be someone that was unaffiliated with politics, but famous nonetheless, committing what would probably be considered the biggest murder in the history of the country.

By kentuckycat — On Sep 06, 2012

@TreeMan - You are correct. I have even heard a story that while John Wilkes Booth was on the run he read newspaper articles about himself and was surprised that he was not being praised by Southerners, but rather vilified.

I honestly believe that it was a conspiracy created by really idealistic people that did not know any better, like they just assumed killing the leader would be a good thing, but did not think it all the way through.

In studying history, there was a minority of people that felt that killing Lincoln would do a whole lot and towards the end of the war, when defeat was assured, it was well known among Southerners that Lincoln was not going to punish them as hard as Congress would, but there were still people that acted without thinking through.

By TreeMan — On Sep 05, 2012

I find the whole Lincoln conspiracy to be incredibly interesting for two reasons. One of them concerns how amazingly bold their strategy was as they not only conspired to kill the president, hard enough to begin with, but other people high up in government, all at the some time in different locations. I find this to be quite amazing that they thought they could actually accomplish all these assassinations.

The other thing that is interesting is the fact that killing Lincoln would not accomplish much at all for the south and even proved to be a bad thing.

Lincoln was the one person in government keeping Congress from punishing the South and with him gone Reconstruction began in a way that it was difficult for the south to recover quickly.

The war was already over and killing Lincoln would have accomplished nothing, so I do not exactly see why they went through with it.

By googie98 — On Nov 03, 2010

@medicchristy: Mary Surratt owned the boarding house where the co-conspirator’s met on a regular basis to plan their attack on the President, Vice President and Secretary of State. They wanted to completely wipe out the chain of command in Washington, in order to give the South control.

The day of the assassination Mary Surratt went to her tavern, supposedly to collect back rent owed by one of her tenants. When she was there, she gave John Lloyd, her innkeeper, a package containing field glasses. She also told him “to make ready the shooting irons”. She was referring to the two repeating carbines and seven revolvers. She bought and stored these items for the conspirator’s on her property.

All the conspirators were hung on July 7, 1865. This made Mary Surratt the first women ever hung in the United States.

By medicchristy — On Nov 03, 2010

What exactly was Mary Surratts involvement in the Lincoln Conspiracy?

By anon67161 — On Feb 23, 2010

Booth did not act alone. There was definitely a conspiracy. Mary Surratt and seven others wanted him dead so Booth took care of their desires.

By anon67158 — On Feb 23, 2010

I think there was a conspiracy because Booth had great connection with the eight people especially Mary Surratt.

By apple07 — On Apr 16, 2007

Hey,

I'm a high school student and we're doing this debate. Well our group got the topic on whether there was a conspiracy to kill Lincoln or not. My partner and I are on the affirmative side and we have to argue that there was a conspiracy to kill him and we also have to criticize the other side say that there wasn't a conspiracy to kill him. I was wondering if you could give me your opnions or views on this topic, or actually on both sides because it would be much appreciated. I don't have any comments or general questions, but I'm just trying to get people's views. So please answer asap b/c its due this friday.

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